Ford Transit Custom Trail review: backbone of Britain goes off the beaten track

Ford’s worhorse van now has a trim, specification and price designed to appeal to the active lifestyle market

I bet that if anyone were to ask you to name a bog-standard workaday van you’d say “Transit”.

Most people would. Ford’s flexible utility vehicle is a byword for the long-suffering panel van used by tradesmen and businesses the length and breadth of the country.

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But if someone asked you to name a lifestyle van, the sort of thing you’d see at a mountain bike park, watersports centre or beach, I suspect your thoughts might turn to Germany.

There’s no doubt that in the world where a bicycle costs as much as a second-hand car and you need space to stow a surfboard, Volkswagen’s trusty Transporter is almost ubiquitous.

Where I live, mountain biking is absolutely massive and about 80% of visiting vehicles are some form of Transporter kitted out to carry bikes, riders and their endless piles of gear.

It’s a big and lucrative market and clearly one that Ford is keen to nab a bigger share of. Hence the arrival of its Trail trim for the Transit family.

It’s available on the full-sized Transit as well as the smaller Transit Custom we’re testing here and brings a few cosmetic embellishments, one major mechanical upgrade and some fancier equipment to make it more appealing to those after more than just a rough-and-ready panel van.

Front and centre amid the visual upgrades is the massive Raptor-style FORD grille that leaves no-one in any doubt about what you’re driving. Beyond that, there’s some black plastic body cladding for a more rugged appearance, along with 16-inch 10-spoke black alloys and Trail badging on the passenger and cargo doors.

Leather seats, an eight-inch touchscreen, air con and front and auto-folding mirrors along with front and rear parking sensors are a step up from standard Transit fare, as is our car’s £912 ICE 25 Pack. That adds adaptive cruise control, lane assist, speed sign recognition and a DAB, smartphone mirroring and navigation upgrade for the touchscreen.

But the Trail spec isn’t just about making the Transit look and feel different, it’s also about adding capability, which is where the standard-fit mechanical limited-slip diff comes in.

The Quaife-engineered LSD is not quite not the all-wheel-drive system offered on the full-size Transit Trail but it is intended to give the Transit Custom a little more ability on rougher terrain, whether that’s bouncing across muddy building sites or navigating wet gravel forestry routes leading to lesser-used trailheads.

Of course, if wake-boarding, parascending or any other such lifestyle pursuit is more your thing, the Transit Custom Trail is just as suitable. At its heart, it’s still a big panel van with a huge load space capable of swallowing whatever active sports gear you need it to.

The Transit Custom comes in a variety of configurations with different wheelbases, roof heights, seating arrangements and engines. Our L1 H1 van is the smallest of the lot but still offers six cubic metres of storage, a 2.5-metre load length and the ability to carry a 1.47-tonne payload. Step up to L2 H2 and you’ll get 8.3 cubic metres of capacity and a three-metre load length. Helpfully, the Trail includes bright LED lighting in the cargo bay as standard. If you want more thn the standard three seats, you can also specific a double cab version that cuts down on load space but adds a second row for more passengers.

As well as the entry-level body, our van features the entry-level engine on the Trail spec, a 128bhp 2.0-litre diesel matched to a surprisingly good six-speed manual transmission. It’s punchy enough if all you’re carrying is a couple of bikes and their riders but if you need more pulling power, there is a 168bhp version, as well as a mild hybrid version of the 128bhp motor that promises benefits in economy and CO2 emissions.

Fundamentally, the Transit Trail Custom does pretty much the same job as any other Transit Custom. However, that clever diff will be useful for anyone who regularly ventures off the beaten track and the higher specification and cosmetic upgrades make it an interesting alternative to the de facto lifestyle leader from VW.

Ford Transit Custom Trail

Price: £36,471 (£38,355 as tested); Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel; Power: 128bhp; Torque: 266lb ft; Transmission: Six-speed manual; Top speed: N/A; 0-62mph: N/A; Economy: 39.2mpg; CO2 emissions: 188g/km